Isabella L. Bird - A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
In 1873 Isabella Bird embarked on a trip through 800 miles of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, on horseback, alone. In a series of letters originally written to her sister back home in England, Bird gives us a detailed account of her travels. It is part Wild West, part nature journal, part historical document, and part character study of the quirky travelers and mountain folk she encounters.
Bird starts in San Francisco and goes up into the mountains by train. Her first stop is the lawless outpost Truckee. Here she shares her bed in shifts with saloon patrons, sleeps to the sound of pistol shots, meets with a grizzly while on horseback, and relates a tragic yet somehow comical story of some local cannibals.
Fortunately she moves on to more picturesque environs. Bird's goal from the beginning is to reach Estes Park, and this area remains the highlight of her trip. While the scenery never goes without a glorious description--Bird seems particularly taken with mountains, preferably snow-capped and close-up--the curious characters she meets also get their fair share of ink. Notable is "Rocky Mountain Jim" or Mr Nugent as she properly calls him. Mr Nugent is a one-eyed outlaw who reads poetry and serves as her guide through some tricky terrain. They form an obviously close friendship during their time together, some even call it romance. Another memorable character is a young man unnamed by Bird who shows up in the dead of winter, eats all the food, fumbles through any chore he is given, and makes such a nuisance of himself that the repercussions border on dire consequences.
Bird tells it all in such excellent detail that we feel we're there--including the part about her eyelids freezing shut and the bullet whizzing past her ear. The reader can take away many things from this multi-faceted work, but the author's point seems to lie in the ephemeral nature of life. She writes of her first visit to Estes Park, "Regarding a place and life ones likes (in spite of all lessons) one is sure to think, 'To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.'" However, she returns to Estes Park to find the place very changed: her friends are gone, the houses are dismantled, and the weather is bleak and icy. She moves on of course, always on the lookout for more adventure, and she apparently found it in Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, and Tibet among others.